Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

We must learn the lessons of the Covid-19 crisis – Alex Neil MSP

The world has been caught napping. Nobody saw the pandemic coming. All round the globe, governments have been slow to waken up to the scale of this outbreak and the speed with which it could infect the whole of humanity and bring about a global meltdown.

Coronavirus is a wake-up call to humankind. It has shown beyond all reasonable doubt that a 21st century pandemic can very quickly bring the entire planet to a standstill. It can infect millions in a very short time. It can destroy the global economy almost overnight. It is catastrophic.

Our immediate priority is to tackle Covid – 19. We must firstly stop it spreading and from infecting millions more. Simultaneously we must find ways of mitigating and ideally curing it, thus saving millions of lives. We must rapidly find an effective vaccine to bring it under permanent control.

Worldwide we need to spend whatever amount of money it takes to achieve all these objectives. Otherwise, a coronavirus outbreak could become an annual event bringing repetitive mayhem to the world economy and to the health and wellbeing of the human race.

Beating this virus must be the overriding priority for every government in every country of the world right now. The consequences of failing to do so are too horrific to contemplate.

We must also learn lessons from the outbreak of coronavirus and take the necessary action required on a global scale to try to avoid such a disaster happening again.

Some of these lessons are very specific to this infection. China in particular has to stop to the kind of flea markets, which facilitated the transfer of this infection from bats to humans, and which appears to have been the primary source of this strain of coronavirus.

Modern animal welfare standards should preclude many of these practises anyway, but it is even more urgent to do so if there is the potential to endanger the human species. This will be difficult for the Chinese Government to accept and implement because it will be trying to overturn centuries of Chinese culture. Nevertheless it has to happen and the rest of the world has to pressurise China into doing it.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), which has performed exceptionally well during this crisis, has to be strengthened and better resourced. Once the immediate crisis is over it should scan the world to identify what have been the most effective ways of dealing with this pandemic. It should identify best practice, based on the available evidence, and pull that together as a handbook for handling future pandemics. This handbook should be updated on a regular basis to take account of new scientific knowledge, the development of new technologies, etc., which can help tackle future pandemics.  The world has to be as fully prepared as it can be for future pandemics, whenever and from wherever they come

WHO should also spearhead a worldwide scientific medical research programme to a) find new ways of being able to spot the potential risk of a new pandemic much earlier than is currently the case b) try to find new methodologies for being able to identify effective treatments and vaccines for new pandemics so that they can be made available much quicker than is currently the case.

Such a research programme should mobilise the global medical science community and make maximum use of artificial intelligence.

A hundred years ago when the Spanish flu killed 50 million people worldwide, the average length of time for developing a vaccine took decades. Today there is a realistic expectation that a vaccine for preventing the spread of Covid – 19 will be available within about 18 months.

Our global aim now should be to make a huge scientific leap forward so that the next time a pandemic breaks out we can produce a vaccine within days rather than weeks or months and have the capability to manufacture and distribute that vaccine throughout the world within a very short timeframe.

The global economy in which we all now live with mass transit across our planet on a daily basis means we have to accept the possibility that one day we may face a pandemic, which poses an existential threat to humanity. We should hope for the best that such a scenario never happens. However, we should prepare for the worst and be ready just in case it does.

Coronavirus, like all pandemics, is primarily about dealing with a public health crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic has also led to an unprecedented worldwide economic crisis, as governments have had to impose lockdowns and bring a virtual standstill to all but the most essential activity until it is medically safe to reboot the economy.

There has been a wide variation in how governments worldwide have responded to the economic fallout from coronavirus.

Small countries like Ireland, Luxemburg, Denmark and Norway have shown that the nimbleness of decision-making in these countries can pay off at a time of crisis. They have moved quickly, comprehensively and innovatively to minimise the economic damage inflicted by this pandemic.

Some countries, like the USA, have been slow to react to the crisis and to waken up to its seriousness and far-reaching consequences.

The Indian Government just got itself into a state of panic. Disgracefully it has used brutality against some of its people, which is totally unjustified and inexcusable. This violence against some of its own people has made the situation even worse and led to avoidable misery for millions of its citizens.

Clearly the world needs to learn the economic lessons of this crisis so that when another pandemic strikes, we will all be better prepared to adjust in such a way that provides the financial and social protection our peoples need and to do so timeously.

There is no room for complacency. Once the immediate crisis is over the focus will rightly be on recovery, especially for our healthcare systems and economies.

Whilst implementing recovery and reconstruction measures is a priority we must take the time to learn the necessary lessons from the Covid-19 crisis at pace. The future of the human race may depend upon it.

Alex Neil is the SNP MSP for Airdrie and Shotts, and a former Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, and for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights